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Gabrielle Odowichuk, project engineer at Limbic Media, uses a voice activated light show during the B.C. Tech Summit on Tuesday. (Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail)
Gabrielle Odowichuk, project engineer at Limbic Media, uses a voice activated light show during the B.C. Tech Summit on Tuesday. (Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail)

Premier Clark vows increase in tech-sector graduates if re-elected Add to ...

British Columbia’s Liberal government is promising to increase the number of tech-sector grads across the province by 1,000 a year if re-elected in the spring provincial election, a commitment welcomed Tuesday by both the postsecondary and the booming tech sectors.

Premier Christy Clark’s promise to increase the number of tech-sector grads by 2022 was among the pledges in a speech that she delivered to hundreds of delegates attending the BC Tech Summit.

“We will be striving to make sure that the grads that we produce are ones who meet the changing needs of the industry in British Columbia,” Ms. Clark said.

The Premier did not offer details of how the expansion would work, but the advanced education ministry later noted, in a statement, that the government is proposing to spend $36-million over the next three years on the effort. Also, the province would work with postsecondary institutions to figure out how to distribute this across the province. Some 8,000 students a year now graduate in science, technology, engineering and math from public postsecondary institutions in the province.

All of this is contingent on the Liberals winning another term – their fifth – in the May 9 provincial election.

The Liberals have made support for the innovation sector – which employs more people in the province than the oil and gas, and forestry sectors combined – a core part of their strategy since 2015. That has included introducing mandatory computer coding education to B.C. grade schools and creating a $100-million venture fund to invest in B.C. startups.

The Premier’s announcement came a day after the opposition New Democrats released their own tech-sector election platform, which includes a commitment that B.C companies in the tech sector would receive a larger share of government IT contracts, as well as $100-million to expand technology-related postsecondary programs.

On Monday, the BC Green Party issued a statement describing the Vancouver tech industry as a “notoriously leaky bucket” ceding much talent to other cities and thereby creating the need for measures to support the sector. It did not offer any specific details.

Stakeholders interviewed at the conference on Tuesday suggested the campaign leading to voting day will see a helpful discussion about the vital high-tech sector, which employs about 100,000 workers in British Columbia.

“That discussion is critical,” Santa Ono, president of the University of British Columbia, said in an interview.

“It’s so central to the future of the province that talking about it is really important regardless of what party might be in government,” said Mr. Ono, adding he has spoken to the NDP and the party realizes the importance of the advanced education sector and innovation economy.

Jamie Cassels, president of the University of Victoria and chair of the Research Universities Council of British Columbia, said he welcomed the commitment to create spaces for more students, citing a “huge demand” for such programs. “It’s the talent piece. The tech sector needs people, needs talented people,” Mr. Cassels said in an interview.

Bill Tam, chief executive of the B.C. Tech Association, said that boosting spaces for students answers a call the tech community has been making for a number of years. “What this allows us to do is grow a lot more talent,” he said.

He said there was a consistency of approach in the Liberal and NDP platforms on the tech sector with a recognition that the future of the B.C. economy depends on embracing technology.

During her remarks, Ms. Clark also made a case for B.C. to urge the federal government to allow more skilled immigrants into Canada as prospective workers for the tech sector, which the B.C. government says is expected to gain 20,000 employees within three years.

Canada needs to be “way better” than the United States at processing and approving applications for highly skilled workers who might be able to contribute to the tech sector, Ms. Clark said. Or, she said, the process of application could be ditched altogether.

“If somebody is earning a PhD at a Canadian university, let’s staple their citizenship onto their PhD certificate the day they cross the stage [to accept it] so when [UBC President] Santa Ono gives them that certificate, they can become a Canadian citizen the exact same day,” she suggested.

Other pieces of the tech agenda announced Tuesday included an expanded eligibility for the Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit, an increased B.C. trade presence in Seattle and Silicon Valley to make the case for B.C. as a place to do business and the creation of a “Procurement Concierge Service” to see if the tech sector might able to solve government’s tech needs.

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